06/15/2011 12:50 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2011

The Shaky Marriage of Apathy and Activism

Apathy is defined as "lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern." I worry a lot about apathy toward, or superficial interest in, world affairs -- even among the most seemingly charitably minded people. Lots of people drive a Prius, dutifully donate the occasional hundred dollars to various respectable charities, and bring a couple cans of food to their school's food drive. Maybe they buy organic food or pay an extra couple dollars for something that says "Sustainably Harvested." This is all great, and it's certainly better than nothing. But is it enough? 

Aside from maybe buying "green" things, how many of these people actively advocate for issues? Turn on the TV not just to watch the Heat vs. the Mavericks, but to stay informed about the goings-on in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan (really any other part of the world besides the US)? A lot of companies are capitalizing on the "coolness" factor of doing good -- Starbucks trying to get its coffee sustainable, Target is donating 5 percent of profits to schools, etc. -- but I think something that few people have addressed is the extent of the level we really care about world affairs.

Just think what typically comes up in conversation. "How was your trip?" "We should totally go shopping!" "I bet you're disappointed by the hockey loss..." When was the last time you had a conversation about child marriages in Yemen or the need for jail reform in the U.S.? Really, when was the last time you thought of those issues? I know you must be imagining me as a strict, frowning person. I'm not trying to say that you should be puritanically informing your friends about all the problems in the world at your next party. That would be a pretty hilarious image. But when do we talk about the issues that impact people other than ourselves?

Maybe the reason politicians haven't brought up homelessness and jail reform -- two very important issues -- is because the homeless and convict communities don't exactly provide a lot of votes. Rich CEOs who can pay for campaign funding, on the other hand, do. This is why I have trouble with the idea that we should only concern ourselves with the things that affect us. Yet it's an idea which seems to have percolated through media and society. Why else do you think we mainly cover US news? It's news about ourselves. And ABC News has a "Made in America" series where they try to get people to mostly buy products made in the U.S.

That's all very well, but ABC didn't mention the fact that when products are manufactured in other nations, they may help to raise that nation's standard of living. When the standard of living rises in other nations, they often buy our products -- things like iPads and other technologies. We live in a globally interconnected society; the time for protectionism is past. We can't afford to think only of ourselves. Why not instead stand up to practices such as child labor, unhealthy work conditions, and low product quality by only giving manufacturing contracts to those factories that meet ethical standards, rather than making blanket statements about the ethics of goods produced in a certain nation?

This only-caring-about-things-that-affect-me attitude does not stop at manufacturing/economics. Reading the Facebook news feed (which yes, I know, is not an accurate reflection of humanity), there are generally a few people who post news articles/calls to action regarding a humanitarian or charitable topic; most of it is "so-and-so is in a relationship with so-and-so," pictures of random things, "I hate the -- expletive -- insert academic subject here -- homework!" etc. Sure, I post pictures of myself and random things, and I'm not going to say you're a bad person because you do too; but I just wish that people wouldn't exclusively talk about what happened at school or what they're having for dinner.

On Facebook, I see that a lot of my peers -- very smart people, in gifted programs and Honors classes, with highly educated parents -- are posting only about self-related things. An apathy toward world affairs is not an epidemic of one class or one age or one country. It can be found, on different levels, in many different people -- whether it's calling a book about women's rights in developing nations boring and deciding to read Gossip Girl books instead, or never discussing ethical issues though you may be perfectly aware of them, or knowing every detail of a dictatorial regime because you have to make a documentary about it for class, but not discussing it in any way when it doesn't pertain to your grade.

A lot of people criticized my article on the prom tradition as being too intolerant of having a good time "once in a while." The problem is that we try to have fun so often, we seem to naturally shy away from the unpleasant things in the world and avoid talking about problems (something I see a lot in school, as peer pressure can make it "uncool" or "weird" to discuss current events in conversation). We try to live in a bubble of Priuses and occasional donations, shopping trips to buy sustainably made $40 shorts with our friends, conversations about school events and neighborhood redecorations.

We have to change our concept of "doing good" as merely the useful but limited actions of making an erratic donation or petition signature, to an awareness of global issues, willingness to take action and raise awareness among our friends, advocating for lesser-known, not necessarily "cool" issues, and overall, a deeper empathy for all our fellow humans (and animals too) -- not just those in our home, school, city, state, or nation. It starts at home and at school, but by emphasizing it through society, I hope we can all realize that shifting "other people's problems" onto other people's shoulders doesn't work as well as pulling together.

I'm by no means the only person who cares about global issues. There is a huge community of like-minded youth and adults who are doing amazing things for the world. (The TED Conference is a great example of this.) I organized a youth TEDx event (independently organized TED conference), last year, called TEDxRedmond where all our speakers and committee members were middle and high school age students. As we're re-organizing the event this year, I've been heartened to see the large number of youth who want to have a voice and a platform to spread messages about important global issues.

It's up to our society to make this the norm -- not the exception.